The Common Good

The Elf on the Shelf Can Stay

It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve decided to relax about him. I refuse to beat myself up over his presence anymore. He’s okay. I mean, don’t get me wrong — he’s annoying and I have concerns. And I know that many of my fellow parents will disagree, and that’s okay. This makes me cringe, but that little Elf on the Shelf can stay.

Ladybugbkt/Flickr/Creative Commons
This elf keeps an eye out from a wine glass. Ladybugbkt/Flickr/Creative Commons

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After some debate, my wife bought the Elf on the Shelf in 2010. If you aren’t familiar with the Elf on the Shelf myth, it goes something like this: Apparently Santa is incapable of knowing if children have been bad or good on his own, so Dec. 1 to Dec. 24 that Jolly Old Elf sends his little elves to houses to spy on boys and girls. Their job is to check to see if children are being naughty or nice. So, each morning before anyone is awake, our Elf flies in from the North Pole and hides in a different spot in our house. When our children wake up — noticeably earlier in December than any other month — they look for him. Yup, it’s hide-and-seek every morning with the Elf. Then, the National Security Agency Elf spies on our children throughout the day. When our children fall asleep at night, the Elf flies back to the North Pole to provide Santa with a report on how our children have behaved. Then the Elf promptly flies back to our house, hides in a new place, and the morning hide and seek ritual begins again.

Truth be told, my children love it. They. Love. It. They can’t wait to wake up in the morning and search for that little Elf.

“Daddy! Daddy! We found the Elf! Do you want us to show you where he’s hiding?” they ask me as I begin to wake up.

“No” I think to myself. “It’s 6! I don’t care about that damn Elf. Let me sleep.”

“C’mon, Dad!” They yell as they tug on my shirt. “We’ll show you where he is!”

Everyone in my family loves the Elf on the Shelf, so maybe I’m just being a curmudgeon. “Bah humbug to that little Elf,” I used to think. “Quit messing with my sleep.” But, alas, my wife keeps the Elf tradition alive in our house. She brings him out of his 11-month hibernation and she hides him every night Dec. 1-24. Well, she forgot one night, but fortunately she woke up at 3 a.m. all worried about something. Then she remembered about our little Elf, got out of bed, and flung him on top of our refrigerator.

So, why do I feel some parental guilt about the Elf on the Shelf? While some claim that the Elf encourages good behavior, it feels to me like this whole Santa/Elf myth manipulates good behavior. It says, “You must be good or no presents this Christmas! You better be good. The Elf is watching … The Elf is always watching …”

Yep. It’s a little creepy.

I worry that this manipulation of good behavior teaches children to grasp onto goodness. This is a problem because humans are social creatures and because we are social, when we grasp onto goodness, we tend to grasp goodness away from others. How do we know that we are good? By being better than someone else, which means we have to put someone else down. And that’s where blaming comes in. How many times have parents heard this scenario?

Daaaaad! Billy just hit me!

No fair! Johnny punched me first!

It’s counterintuitive, but being “good” is one of our biggest problems. Theologian James Alison puts it like this in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, “[O]ur self-identity as ‘good’ is one of our most sacred idols. It is one of the things that makes us most dangerous to others and to ourselves.”

Our sense of goodness is dangerous to ourselves and to others because we constantly grasp onto goodness over and against one another. This is not good because it puts us in a position of rivalry with one another as we grasp onto goodness. 

“Goodness” is such a dilemma. Even as I write this I’m aware that I’m putting myself in a position of goodness and moral superiority over those who have no problem with Santa or the Elf on the Shelf. Can’t you see what this moralism of goodness and rewards is doing to our children!?! Stop!!!!!

Listen, parenting is hard. I’ve made many mistakes and have many regrets. Is the Elf on the Shelf going to do permanent damage to any child? Of course not. So, despite my reservations that he’s bringing a pernicious moralism into the Ericksen household, he can stay. After all, wouldn’t it be moralistic of me to change his name from the Elf on the Shelf to the Elf in the Garbage Can?

I’m even beginning to admit that the Elf brings a sense of joy and wonder to my children. That joy and wonder is an important part of the Christmas season, which is ultimately about love. Christmas tells us that as social creatures, we don’t have to grasp onto goodness over and against one another. We can be social creatures who freely love. The freedom to love in a way that isn’t based on others being naughty or nice is especially important when it comes to parenting. As parenting and educational expert Alfie Kohn says in his book Unconditional Parenting, “What kids really need is love without strings attached.” That, I think, is the whole point of Christmas.

Christmas is not about being good enough to receive gifts. It’s about God entering into the world to show us that whether we are “naughty” or “nice” is not the point. The point is that we are loved. And that is a joyful and wondrous thing.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen

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